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Archive for December, 2010

My neighbor's farm in the late afternoon


The only way to survive winter is to get out in it. We got hammered with snow the day after Christmas; Debbie and I had the wisdom to drive back from my father’s place Christmas night so we wouldn’t get stuck on the hellhole that Route 95 can be during a snowstorm. The day of the storm, winds were high, and you really couldn’t go out in it (except to cross the street for a neighbor’s party – everyone showed up on foot and we had a great time).

The next afternoon, after we dug out, I headed down the street to a neighbor’s place to cross-country ski. It is one of my favorite things, and I’m lucky enough to have a friend who has a large parcel of land in conservation trust, and is happy to let me ski there. There are horse trails through it, but this time of year, the only people who get very far into the woods are me and another neighbor, Bonnie, who use the trails for skiing.

You could tell the storm had been fierce – the northeast side of the trees were covered in snow, and the southwest side were untouched, standing black against the white background. Depending on which way you looked, one view was a negative impression of the other. I had to make tracks most of the way, and the branches of beech and maple saplings were bowed over across the trail from either side much of the way. At first, I couldn’t understand why they were all headed down into the trail, rather than all leaning the same direction, but then it occurred to me that the trees had more room to grow in the trail opening, so there many more branches on the trailside of the tree. The snow was two or three inches deep on even the slightest branch, and many bowed all the way to the ground. I felt like King Arthur as I passed down the trail. I would touch a slender trunk with my wand (er, ski pole), the snow shook off it and the tree sprung back up in the air, ready to continue its knightly quest of being a tree.

One thing I love about being out in the winter is seeing the contours of the land – there are little hillocks and low lying wetlands, rock outcroppings and eskers that you don’t see when the trees are bearing leaves. There are some tracks – deer, coyote, rabbit, maybe a fox – but there is mostly the sense that everything is resting for just a short while. When I’m out there, I get the feeling I really can see where I live.

And then, my mind calms down too. The combination of movement and quiet is pretty rare, and I need both of them to calm down – it’s my brain chemistry, I guess. Meditation works, too – or maybe this is just another form of meditation.

I went out again yesterday – the snow is melting and the ground is showing through where I’ve already made tracks. It’s the slushy stuff that can get you down.
So I’m hoping for another four or five inches.

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About ten years ago, I gave a talk to a group of teachers about the connection between home and school. I had been hired to tell stories, but instead wrote a series of letters back and forth between a mom and the teachers her kid meets along the way. It was an imagining of how teachers and parents might communicate, based on my own experiences as a parent and my work in schools. Over the years, I’ve read it in various workshops and people have always liked it.

Still, that was all I did with it. It’s my tendency to finish one project and just move on.

This past summer, Debbie (wife, president of our huge corporation(?), and now publisher) decided it needed to be a book and that we would do it ourselves. We sent it out to a variety of people – writers, educators, parents – for review and made some changes. Our longtime designer, Alison Tolman-Rogers, helped with the design of the book. I drew a rough of the cover illustration and she did the final artwork and design. We got some quotes from people we thought would like it, including George Wood, a first-rate principal and educator, and Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy”, who worked with me years ago at NPR. Everyone liked it.

After a lot of research, we decided to publish initially with the self-publishing branch of Amazon. Debbie worked with them very closely, sending proofs back several times to make sure they got it right. Since then, we’ve found a printer that does a beautiful job at a better price, so we have our own copies from that printer, and Amazon sends out their copies if someone orders it from them. (more about, um, Amazon in another blog).

So now it’s out, and it feels like we’ve touched a nerve. It’s a small, simple book, and can be read in one sitting. There is an underlying philosophy, but it’s the story of the mom and the kid and the teachers that reaches people. We’re getting orders from principals who are buying it for their entire staffs, and I’ve been asked to speak at workshops and conferences about the book and how the relationship between home and school can be strengthened. Parents are buying it as Christmas presents for their kid’s teachers. I got an e-mail from a teacher friend who said before she wrote a note to the parent of a student in her class, she thought about the book and how to best approach the problem she faced.

I am not an expert on teacher-parent relationships, but instead, someone who has given thought to it and tried to find a way to talk about it. I seemed to have found a way for everyone to listen and talk to each other. My expertise, if I have one, is in imagining how things might be, and then getting people to tell stories. As I say in the book, it’s the decision to keep communicating that is the most important thing.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long” – it may take a long time for something to bear fruit. Some small thing I did a number of years ago has taken years to bear fruit, and I never would have dreamed it could still be alive.

And then, I should add, you can order it here.

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